Drugs, guerilla war, and Sharia law: Aceh, Indonesia's holiest city

A fascination for the mysterious and different comes most alive in my choice of travel destinations.  I like to visit places that most other people bypass.  Places well off the beaten track, where the dangerous and the unusual is likely, and there are few, if any, judgements passed on by other travellers to muddy my expectations.  


Places like Banda Aceh.  

Baiturrahjman Mosque, Banda Aceh.

Baiturrahjman Mosque, Banda Aceh.


I travelled to Aceh to search for stories while interning with the BBC in Jakarta.  I was attracted by the brilliant contradictions of the city; I had heard Aceh was an autonomous kingdom governed by Sharia Law, where homosexuals and adulterers were caned or publicly stoned to death and transvestites and street punks were rounded up by religious police and forced into ‘correctional’ boot camps. 


It was also where all of Indonesia’s marijuana was grown.  And, apparently, there were still underground warungs upholding an ancient culinary tradition of using cannabis seeds and leaves as a flavour enhancer in curries and soups.  It was also the first transit point for methamphetamine being imported from Malaysia.


I wanted to investigate.


After spending a few days on the coast, surfing and researching a story on the group of lifeguards formed in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami, I checked into a cheap hotel in the city. 


At first glance, Aceh appeared almost the same as any other Indonesian city.  It was hot, dusty, and dirty. Men sat drinking coffee and smoking in shaded shopfronts.  They wore loose fitting pants, thongs, and t-shirts. Apart from a few more and bigger mosques, there were no signs this city was different from any other major Indonesian provincial capital.


In fact, I saw things that hinted at the uglier, more wicked facets of humanity.  Things like splotches of dried blood caked on my hotel bed, a promiscuous, smoke-stained lace curtain drawn across the iron bars on the window, and the dangdut music that throbbed through the hotel walls every night until 5am.


Sure, there was a seedy side to this city, as there is in every city.  But it wasn’t until I met a group of boys my own age I realised that common humanity overrides cultural difference, no matter how vast.


It was my third morning in the city I was preparing to leave.  I was supposed to be here for two more nights, but I was lonely, lost, and aimless, and I wanted to change my flight back to Jakarta.  I was looking for a travel agent.


But the roller doors of every shop were pulled shut and the streets were empty but for one man sweeping the footpath.  I stopped at a small kiosk to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes to pass the time, as is Indonesian custom.  I sat on a bench in the morning sun and turned to ask the boy beside me for a lighter.


Passing time.

Passing time.

He looked at me strangely, and lit my cigarette.


“Where are you from?  What are you doing in Banda Aceh?” he said. 


“I’ve come from Jakarta to write a story.”


“About what?”


“I want to know about this place,” I said. “About how Sharia Law and marijuana plantations can co-exist.”


The boy took a deep drag of his cigarette, and smiled at me through the smoke. 


Just then more boys began to arrive, all of them uniform in red polo-shirts.  Kaifuddin, my new friend, introduced me to the others: Panda, Fahrul, Dedi, and Anwar.


“He’s from Australia,” Kaifuddin said, nodding at me.


The boys sat around me and bombarded me with questions: how did I know how to speak Indonesian?  Could I speak Acehnese?  Did I want to learn? What language did they speak in Australia? And what was the weather and the landscape and the religion and the culture?


After our second coffee, Dedi and Fahrul and Kaifuddin excused themselves and stood up. 


“Sorry, Tom,” said Kaifuddin, strapping a bundle of copper cabling to his motorbike.


“We have to go now to a job. Check out of your hotel and move down here.  Sleep with us, in the office.  We know that hotel.  It is not nice.  We will be back later this afternoon.  Anwar will show you around the city today.”


I waved them goodbye.  Anwar helped me to carry my bags from the hotel and into an alcove in the tiny office, where I would sleep on the floor later that night.    We clambered onto his motorbike, weaving through traffic into the city centre. Anwar pointed out a large cargo ship resting on its side among the buildings.  We were ten kilometres from the ocean. 


“Detritus of the tsunami,” he said.  “It flattened the whole city.  I was lucky, because I come from another village that wasn’t badly affected.  Kaifuddin and Fahrul, they lost parents and siblings.  Before Kai worked he fell in the with GAM. Do you know GAM?


I shook my head. 


Gerakan Aceh Merdeka,” Anwar said over the roar of his 600cc Yamaha.  “The Free Aceh Insurgency. They fought for Aceh’s independence in a thirty-year civil war with the military. They funded the war through the marijuana trade.  When Kaifuddin’s parents died, GAM looked after him, and he carried guns for them.”


“When did the war end?”


“In 2005,” said Anwar.  “The tsunami ended the war, and GAM agreed to hand over their weapons if the government gave Aceh autonomy.  That’s why there is Sharia Law only in Aceh.  It’s separate from the rest of Indonesia.”


“What happened to the marijuana trade?”


“The Indonesian army own the marijuana trade now.  It’s big business.  You can ask Kai and Fahrul about that.  They know.”


“How does Fahrul know?”


“Fahrul got caught growing marijuana outside his village.  He had to leave his hometown and he hid from the police in East Java for one year.  Now Marwon, our boss, is helping him to regain the honour and respect of his family.  He is helping us all in some way.  He is a good man, Marwon. A Christian, from Medan.  They persecute him for his religion here, but I do not judge him because Marwon knows what it is like to be a young man and lost. He has given us a place to stay, a job, a direction in life.  I hope I can repay him one day.”


“What about you, Anwar? I said.  “What trouble did you get in to?”


Anwar sighed.


“I had a good job in my home town.  I was working at a palm oil plantation and earning six million rupiah per month, three times the average wage.  I got a loan for this bike, but then I had an argument with my boss and I got fired.  My father was very angry.  I had to leave my hometown and to look for work and my independence.  It’s the custom for all young men in Indonesia, Tom.  We call it merantau. It means wandering. Do you have merantau in Australia?”


“Umm, kind of,” I said.  When I thought about it, I realised we didn’t really have many traditions in Australia at all. 


Anwar, Acehnese port.

Anwar, Acehnese port.

We passed the port now, and Anwar took me along the coast where the buildings were well back from the ocean.  He asked about the process of finding a wife in Australia. 


“Do you have to give the father gold?” he said.


“Gold?  No.  Why?”


“If I want to get married and to be with a woman, I first have to pay the father in gold.”


“In gold?” I said.


“Yes.  In gold.  Sometimes your family can give other gifts, like goats, and cattle.  But there always has to be gold.  That’s the law in Aceh,” he said.


We stopped now on a bridge above where a murky river ran out to the sea.  Beneath the bridge on the rocky banks hundreds of people fished with bamboo poles and rods.  Above, meandering couples and young men ate spiced fruit and fried snacks. 


“What about New Year’s Eve?” said Anwar.  “Do you celebrate New Year’s Eve in your country?”


“Yes.  It is a public holiday. For two weeks after Christmas everybody has holidays.”


“In Aceh, it is forbidden to celebrate New Year’s Eve,” said Anwar.  “Last year, I heard in the news there was a group of rich people who hired out a hotel to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  The Sharia police found them and they were all caned in public.  In Aceh we live by the Hijri calendar.”


“The Hijri calendar?”


“It’s the Islamic calendar.  This year now is 1339.”


“How many months are there?”


“The same.  Twelve.  But it is difficult to understand.  Sometimes, Mulharram, the Islamic New Year, is in the eighth month, sometimes the ninth, or the tenth.”


There was a note of sadness in Anwar’s voice as he compared his life to mine.  It made me feel guilty and spoiled.  We were both twenty-three-years-old, but I was a Westerner born into Australia’s affluent middle class, where freedom reigned supreme and a wealth of opportunity made deciding on anything difficult.  All Anwar wanted was a job, and enough money to get married and to return to his hometown occasionally.


I wondered who was really the more privileged.